ENDNOTES, 16th April 2017
In this edition; Holst in the heavens: Vaughan Williams at a lake in the mountains: Richard Strauss and a miraculous sunrise – and French élan from Ibert. Reviewed by Stuart Millson
From the Chandos record label comes a recording that makes an immediate impression, a dynamic and finely-recorded “demonstration” version of Holst’s suite The Planets. Conducting the 150-strong National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the equally youthful-looking maestro, Edward Gardner, presents Holst’s astrological scenes with a vigour seldom seen in other recordings of this war-horse. Apropos the opening movement, Mars – the bringer of war – Edward Gardner’s reading of this sinister passage is like no other, the Chandos microphones picking up the ticking, tapping drum-taps at the beginning – as if some great machine is coming into view, one of H.G. Wells’s “Land Ironclads”, perhaps. Relentlessly, the young players of the NYO hammer out these chords of war, bringing a new vigour to the Mars movement. Then, they switch effortlessly to the delicate dreamscape of Venus, the bringer of peace. A soothing half-light – strings, high woodwind and a feeling resembling the opening of Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes – arises from the pure, poised and balanced NYO playing, which also achieves great distances and a slightly unsettling disappearance into nothingness in the end-movement, Neptune, the mystic.
The undoubted highlight, however, is the performance of the Jupiter movement – the “bringer of jollity” – which Edward Gardner drives forward at an almost breathless pace, releasing Holst’s folk-dances, as if we are being spun around and thrown into crowds of fellow dancers at a wild village festivity. Yet halfway through, the frantic revellers calm themselves, and – like a religious procession suddenly appearing and changing the mood – a noble tune (later set to the words, I Vow to Thee My Country) takes the movement into a realm of high-minded, but kindly passion. The gear-change is effortless.
Sharing this NYO-Planets box-set is Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. The introduction or sunrise (forever associated with the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, A Space Odyssey) is splendidly interpreted by Edward Gardner, yet he avoids lingering over each and every note – preferring to stride up the mountainside to greet the sun. The trumpets and massed-brass of the NYO are as good as anything on record from Berlin, Vienna, New York or Chicago – the orchestra’s timpanist giving us a clear portent of things to come, and announcing Zarathustra’s return from his long exile. Strauss’s tone poem contains several introspective passages, and a strange melancholy theme on nostalgic strings in the first half of the work. A waltz also makes an appearance, religion and legend rubbing shoulders with the cosmopolitan cafe life of Vienna.
For our next musical offering we go to the Somm catalogue, to a set of piano pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which includes his evocative The Lake in the Mountains (music from the wartime film, The 49th Parallel). Performed by Mark Bebbington, who has given memorable performances of the composer’s work at the English Musical Festival, and by Rebeca Ormodia, the collection includes a homage to Orlando Gibbons (a hymn-tune prelude), a two-piano version of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and an Introduction and Fugue for Two Pianos. My preference is for the orchestral version of the Tallis Fantasia – the work having been made for strings and string sonorities in an English cathedral – but there is no doubting the beauty of the version which Mark and Rebeca have given us. This disc provides a new perspective on this most English of composers, a month before we embark on our annual pilgrimage to the 2017 English Music Festival.
Finally, Chandos has brought back to life the Gallic wit of French composer Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) in a CD that shows the Suisse Romande Orchestra (the great vehicle of Ernest Ansermet – champion of French and Swiss 20th-century music) in its finest colours. The symphonic suite, Paris, is typical of Ibert’s Satie-like simplicity; and a sarabande from an inter-war film, Don Quichotte is imbued with sentimental romanticism. The Divertissement from 1930 is perhaps the best-known Ibert score (based upon the play The Italian Straw Hat) – with its sending up of famous waltzes and marches. The CD opens with Escales – ports of call – Ibert’s impressionist view of Mediterranean seascapes. Conductor Neeme Jarvi evidently relishes such overlooked material.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Holst and Strauss/NYO/Gardner, catalogue number: CHAN 5179; Vaughan Williams, Piano Music, SOMM0164: Ibert, orchestral works, Suisse Romande/Jarvi, CHSA 5168